Deidre Orriola earns Hispanic Heritage Award

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Deidre Orriola, a USF College of Public Health alumna, faculty instructor II, health educator and lactation counselor, spent a week last year in hurricane-torn Puerto Rico as part of a collaborative disaster-relief committee including members of USF Health, Moffitt Cancer Center, and the public and private sector in Puerto Rico.

Deidre Orriola, MPH, CLC

In recognition of her service—which included educating residents about the prevention of mosquito-borne illnesses, how to make dirty water clean and the safety of breastfeeding in a disaster environment, Orriola and the committee members received a USF Hispanic Heritage Award.

The award, presented by the USF Status of Latinos (SoL) Committee, recognizes students, staff, faculty, alumni and/or community members who have “significantly contributed to the Hispanic/Latinx community in the past year.”

The awards ceremony took place Oct. 4 at a celebration luncheon in the Marshall Student Center, one of several USF-sponsored events held in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15.

“I’m very honored to receive the award,” Orriola said. “But it really should go to the entire Puerto Rican community. This disaster-relief effort was community led and supported. We just plugged ourselves into the community for a week and made our resources available. It is the community that did all the work and continues to do the work in rebuilding.”

When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico over a year ago, Orriola, a native of the island, got together with some of her USF Health colleagues—in particular Dr. Jessica Gordon, also a Puerto Rico native and an assistant professor at the College of Nursing and her husband, Rico Gordon, a laboratory technologist at Moffitt Cancer Center—to strategize how to help.

“We felt hopeless and powerless. But then we realized that we have the means, the resources and the brains to help,” Orriola said.

The group connected with friends, family and colleagues on the island to determine what was needed and where.

“We hooked up with Dr. Yazmin E. Rodriguez Vellon, a primary-care physician whose office was destroyed.  We also contacted Dr. Diana Negron, a friend who runs a substance-abuse clinic for men,” Orriola commented. “We said, ‘OK, we know something terrible has happened and we all want to do something to make it better. So let’s work together, use our strengths and make something happen.’ We told them that if they could find us the space, we could find the supplies.”

Forty-five days after the Category 4 hurricane blew through the island, the group set up pop-up medical clinics in the municipality of Vega Baja, along the island’s northern coast, moving between five different communities. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., the group handed out personal- and feminine-hygiene supplies, bug spray, batteries, diapers and condoms (7,000 of which were donated by the Hillsborough County Health Department).

They also performed services like urine analyses, blood pressure readings and glucose tests (when their supply of testing strips got low, Orriola went to the island home of her diabetic grandfather to gather his extras).

Residents were also counseled on health promotion and disease prevention in the context of a disaster using limited resources.

Orriola (second from right) with volunteers and community leaders. (Photo courtesy of Orriola)

When the clinic closed at 3 p.m., the group hit the road, making home visits to those who were unable to attend the clinic, such as patients who were bed bound or oxygen dependent.

While proud of receiving the award, Orriola is quick to give credit where credit is due.

“This was an effort that was supported by people with resources, but guided by the community affected,” she said. “We had local teachers working with us who would do a project with the kids while the parents waited for their medical treatment. We set up a clinic at a restaurant that every Tuesday provided free rice and beans to people in the neighborhood. The community completely marketed the health services, handing out flyers and knocking on doors. Getting this award is great. But the real work was done by the resilient people on the ground rebuilding their communities.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health